Daily Hab-it: Further testing required
Published Thursday, February 24, 2011 3:06AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 3:10AM EDT
A win on the road against the best team in the NHL would – under normal circumstances, and in a normal city – be cause for a short respite from the negative views that the natural anxieties of die-hard fans can produce.
Except this is not a normal city, and this case does not involve normal circumstances.
No, the matter of David Desharnais and his linemates Benoit Pouliot and Ryan White sitting on the bench for the entire third period in Tuesday's 3-2 win in Vancouver was a matter of great outrage in Montreal on Wednesday.
Generally, when people are analyzing the usage of the bottom six forwards, it means things are going pretty well for the club.
Except that's not the case here, because the discussion is centred around the performance of someone firmly lodged in the top six.
With Scott Gomez failing to get his season jump started – and with only 21 games left to play the hope that he ever will becomes dimmer and dimmer – the way Desharnais is being used is a legitimate topic of conversation.
What happened in Vancouver is pretty simple in my eyes – Jacques Martin was not only miffed about Pouliot's offensive zone interference penalty late in the second period, he was also trying to match the line against Alain Vigneault's fourth unit anchored by rookie Cody Hodgson.
Hodgson, Tanner Glass and Victor Oreskovich did not play at all in the third period – except for one random shift by Glass.
So it became a three-line game for both teams, and Desharnais' unit lost out to the one centred by Lars Eller, a player who's gone through his fair share of late-game benching this season.
The scenario is not unlike what Desharnais has consistently experienced since his first game of the season on Jan. 2 in that match-ups – above everything else – will dictate his usage.
Martin, based on the past history of the second half of last season and the playoffs, trusts Gomez and knows that he needs him to find his game for the team to have any degree of success this spring.
Is that fair to Desharnais? Probably not.
Will it change? Probably not.
But Martin might want to consider trusting his new sparkplug a little more and putting Desharnais in more challenging situations, because at this point it wouldn't be a bad idea to be developing a Plan B in case Gomez's funk is permanent.
There's no way of knowing whether Desharnais is capable of picking up some of the slack right now because he hasn't been given an opportunity to show it, having been very sheltered from difficult game situations.
His quality of competition number over at Behind The Net is the second-lowest on the team, ahead of only Yannick Weber, which proves just how reticent Martin is to risk exposing Desharnais to mismatches, particularly on the road.
Numbers of little help
I tried to establish a trend with Desharnais' usage and, frankly, I failed. Nothing obvious jumps out and it appears his ice time is determined on a game by game basis, depending on the types of players on the opposing team and Martin's needs late in the game.
But the numbers I dug up are interesting nonetheless, and seeing as I looked them up, I may as well share them.
I was pretty surprised to see that Desharnais' ice time on the road (12:02/game) is not astronomically lower than what he gets when Martin can control the match-ups at home (12:51). Not only that, but Desharnais is using those minutes to great effectiveness, putting up four goals and three assists in nine road games, compared to two goals and four assists in 13 home games. Desharnais' faceoff percentage is hardly impacted by where he is playing either, keeping it above 50 per cent both at home (52.9) and on the road (51.6).
Meanwhile, Gomez's performance has some marked differences home and away even though he has split his 30 points right down the middle.
His plus-minus rating is horrid in his 27 road games (minus-12) and considerably less so (minus-5) in 32 home games. That is in large part a reflection of how the team has played on the road overall, but Gomez has to take some of that responsibility.
The level of trust Martin has in Gomez is seen in his ice time splits, which are at 18:07 per home game and 18:40 per road game, in spite of the plus-minus evidence that he hasn't been able to rise to that challenge to this point.
Say what you will about Tomas Plekanec's road struggles this season, he's still only a minus-3 in 28 road games on a team with a losing record in opposing rinks. It's a far cry from his plus-13 rating at home, but it's within reason.
Gomez's minus-12 is not, though the number is somewhat skewed by the one horrendous game in Boston where he was a minus-4 after only two periods and watched the third period from the bench.
As opposed to Desharnais, Gomez's faceoff percentage plummets in road games from 52.4 per cent at the Bell Centre down to 45.2 per cent (same thing with Plekanec, by the way, who goes from 52.3 per cent to 45.2 per cent).
One final statistical quirk is that the Canadiens are 4-1-0 in games where Desharnais has played fewer than 10 minutes, and 7-5-4 when he's above that mark. The fact Desharnais sees his minutes suffer when the Canadiens are protecting a lead plays a big role in that stat.
A similar one shows that the Canadiens are 26-11-3 when Gomez is kept below 19 minutes of ice time, and 6-11-4 when he's above it.
A quandary that requires a solution
I really do sympathize with Martin's dilemma here.
Gomez remains a very important player on the team, one who has won before, one who elevated his game in last year's playoffs, one that will have a huge impact on the success of the team for better or for worse.
He's deserved some degree of leeway based on his track record, except he's received it and done little with it.
Desharnais, meanwhile, has been given a chance to play in situations where he is most likely to succeed and, for the most part, he's done so.
Has he reached the point where he should be given a new challenge, that of facing more difficult competition?
I would have to say he has, at least in limited quantities, because circumstances dictate the need for an insurance policy for Gomez's continued lethargy going forward.
Barring some sort of blockbuster from Pierre Gauthier, that insurance might have to be Desharnais.